I’ve had a surprising number of requests for my thoughts on how tenor players can best learn alto trombone. My sense is that there are a fair amount of alto trombones out there not being used to their fullest because of the difficulty for a tenor player to play both well.
That is precisely why I sold my tenor in college shortly after taking up the alto. I was trying to play both. After all, I had gigs around town, school groups and my trombone studies so I was trying to hang on to my tenor proficiency while learning the alto. But I got to the point of sounding bad on both. I’m not suggesting both can’t be played really well simultaneously, just not by me back then.
So like early explorers wishing to remove the fallback of sailing back home once things got difficult, I sold my tenor and forced myself to get it together. It was a struggle, but I eventually wrestled it to the ground! I just needed to come clean on a little history because I do not think it is easy to learn the alto on the side with the full or greater proficiency many tenor players desire.
I would be remise if I didn’t at least mention my book Alto Trombone Savvy. One of my best selling books, it takes player from the basics of learning the positions and partials all the way through playing jazz. Check it out here and download the free preview.
Learning the alto trombone
First, I treat the tenor as a C instrument. I know that the fundamental is Eb, but the tenor’s fundamental is Bb and we still read C music. For me, 440 hertz is A4. When I see the A above the staff, I simply play A440 in second position.
I hear some players say that they are doing mental transposition up a fourth in order to get the positions, and I recommend against that. I think learning the alto trombone means learning the new positions of the notes on sight. Middle C in 4th position, F above that in third, the F an octave below in sixth, and so on. In tune and on command. Even if you can accomplish the mental gymnastics of that sight transposing, how do you apply that to reading changes playing jazz?
Here are some tips:
- Practice with some simple music playing in the background so that you can hear the intonation. Playing the C scale on alto a capella will help you to learn the positions, but hearing related harmonies along with your playing will help you hone your intonation. One of the things you’ll hear from most guys playing alto is that the intonation isn’t clean because they’re a little unsure of the slide positions. As trombone players we know that intonation isn’t solely about positions, but your face can’t yet compensate if you’re still fishing for the positions, even minutely.
- Like you probably do on tenor, practice intervals. One of the harder notes on an alto is the F below middle C. It’s in sixth position. Practice – slowly at first – going from F back to first position Eb. You’ll need to have that movement down. Then play G (forth position) F, Eb. Yea, it’s hard. Again, like I wrote above, practice this with some harmonies in the background to nail the pitch of that F. Then slowly play the Eb major scale. (Be careful not to pop off the slide when going for that F. It’s a shorter slide!)
- My one case for mental transposition is when practicing exercises like Kopprasch or Bach Cello Suites because much of those exercises go below low A which, without a trigger, cannot be played naturally. So I read them in the tenor positions up a fourth. I play those Cello Suites A LOT. I do not do this as a cheat to learning positions. I do it to play certain great music and trombone exercises so that they fall naturally within the upper forth mechanics of the alto.
Last, let me reiterate that to play the alto well, and not just as a novelty sideline instrument requires dedication. If you have the luxury, put the tenor in a closet for a week and force yourself to play the alto exclusively. I don’t mean at concerts or recordings, unless you’re ready. But maybe a period of time in which you can suffer through playing alto exclusively. This is all coming from my experience, and maybe you are a much more talented musician and trombone player than me. I mean that. Maybe you can play both without a hardcore exclusive dedication to the alto. It’s kind of uncharted territory because, honestly I haven’t heard any really solid jazz/ improvisational alto players.
Go for it!!!